Cleaning Leather

I was asked recently how often I take my leather garments to be cleaned, such as at a dry cleaner. My response may have raised eyebrows…

… when I said,

Honestly, in all my life, I have never had a leather garment cleaned by anyone else like a dry cleaner. I have scrubbed, conditioned, and polished my own leathers. I’ve never had a problem with “dirty leather.” Even leather jeans that have gotten muddy have been relatively easy to clean by my own methods.

From my personal experience, I have found two places that leather gets dirty and requires cleaning. But I can, and do, clean it myself. Here’s where and how.

1. Exterior

Leather garments are specifically designed to be protective against the elements (rain and dirt), especially for those who wear it while riding a motorcycle. Unplanned showers, rain splash from puddles or ponding, or even “snud” (dirty melted snow spray) can get all over the leather and form a cruddy film.

Think about it, though. The dirt is on the outside of the leather, protecting your clothing underneath from getting dirty. In addition to protection from abrasion, that is among the main reasons why I wear leather chaps when riding my Harley to work. I never know when the random patch of loose dirt, or rain run-off on the road will cause a dirty mess to be sprayed by my tires onto my lower legs. Chaps take the dirt and keep my dress clothes underneath clean and dry.

When this happens, which is frequent, the first thing I do after I remove the leather I am wearing that got dirty (jacket, pants, chaps) is to wipe it with a clean damp cloth. I rinse out the cloth and wipe again. I keep wiping until the last rinse of the cloth is clear.

I use plain water to dampen the cloth. You really don’t need to use expensive “leather cleaner” or saddle soap. In fact, many leather garment manufacturers will advise not to use saddle soap on soft leather meant to be worn. Saddle soap is for hard leather, like saddles!

Then within a day, I apply good quality leather conditioner (such as Bickmore Bick 4 or Lexol) according to label directions. I work it into the leather by using a slow circular motion with a clean lintless cloth. Heck, in a pinch, I use old socks that have a hole in the heel as cloths to apply conditioner.

Then I hang up the leather garment in a place away from direct sunlight, but in the open so air can circulate. I allow it to dry for a few days before wearing it again. If I ride again before that leather has “rested after treatment,” I wear other leathers. (One reason why I have more than one pair of leather pants, and definitely, more than one leather jacket!)

Three things to note:

a. Immediate attention before dirt dries onto the leather is important. That initial wipe-down (leather wipes work great!), even in the office bathroom on the morning of arrival-by-motorcycle, is among the main reasons why my leather garments — most particularly chaps and jackets — have retained their soft and supple shape, as well as strength and durability, for many, many years.

b. Applying leather conditioner (sparingly!) within a day of hard wear is also important. That restores the moisture in the leather and gives it some added resistive protection from its next exposure to a harsh environment of Harley-delivered road spray.

c. Letting leather “rest” after conditioning in an open, airy, non-sunny place is also important. I do not know exactly why this helps with the longevity of the garment, but let me tell you, it does. Yeah, you may have your favorite jacket that is your signature, but if you really like it, you will condition it, let it air out, and wear it two or three days later, but not day after day.

BTW — I also treat my boots the same way. I wipe them down religiously, and keep them conditioned as I wear them.

2. Interior

Yeah, when it’s warm and I am wearing leather, some times my crotch sweats. I admit, some times the sweat soaks through my underwear. There have been times that the interior of leather pants at the crotch, or interior of the underarms in jackets, gets “funky.”

Left untreated, this “funk” can be a growth medium for mold. Often these areas of leather garments are dark and damp, which further promotes growth of mold. Black mold.

Once that shit gets going, it can quickly cause permanent damage to garments because the mold “eats” the leather and causes it to get thin, as well as damage or destroy stitching that holds the garment together in the areas that usually move or bend a lot.

So when I am cleaning and treating the exterior of my pants and jackets, I also wipe down and clean the interior crotch, knee, and underarm areas as well. I don’t apply leather conditioner there, but I really work hard at removing invisible “growth medium” of sweaty “funk” that accumulates in these places.

Why do I mention this? I learned the hard way once. I never cleaned the armpits of a favorite leather jacket. I wore it regularly. After about two years, I put it on one day, swung my arm into the jacket, and the jacket’s left sleeve ripped open where it was stitched to the body. While I had it mended, it never fit right again. The tailor who mended it for me explained what happened — mold caused by sweat caused deterioration.


Attend to your leathers by keeping them clean and conditioned regularly, and they will outlive you.

Life is short: enjoy wearing leather!

1 thought on “Cleaning Leather

Comments are closed.